Designers vs. Conversers

What have you learned about people?

by Dennis Shasha (NYU)

When I entered college, I thought the intellectual world was divided into science people and humanities people. I loved math and physics, so put myself firmly in the former camp.

Funnily though, I found that I had much more in common with painters and sculptors than say with political scientists or economists.

I finally married an artist in fact.

It took me to my first job — designing circuits for computer processors — to realize why.

Artists and engineers are designers. They start with a relatively small set of given tools and physical knowledge and they create new things.

The physics of sculpture is simple, but whether the result is a Rodin or a Brancusi depends on the sculptor. Similarly, digital circuit design requires learning a few months of mathematical engineering, but what you make can control rockets or simulate the femtosecond movements of a protein.

So, if you like to build stuff or sketch stuff or code stuff or compose stuff, think of yourself as a designer. Find other ones. Write code near their acetylene torches. Exchange ideas and doubts and food ideas. You have so much in common.

In a magazine column I used to write, I once described my profession as: “Dennis Shasha creates and solves puzzles for a living.”

An irate reader challenged the editors saying “Surely, Prof Shasha does more than that.”

The truth is, not really.

The more important truth: there are many of us.


Dennis Shasha is a professor of computer science at the Courant Institute of New York University where he works with biologists on pattern discovery for network inference; with computational chemists on algorithms for protein design; with physicists and financial people on algorithms for time series; on database applications in untrusted environments; and on computational reproducibility. Other areas of interest include database tuning as well as tree and graph matching.

Because he likes to type, he has written many books, including six books of puzzles about a mathematical detective named Dr. Ecco, a biography about great computer scientists, and a book about the future of computing. He has also written four technical books about database tuning, biological pattern recognition, time series, DNA computing, and statistics. He has co-authored over sixty journal papers, seventy conference papers, and fifteen patents. He has written the puzzle column for various publications including Scientific American.

Author: Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.

2 thoughts on “Designers vs. Conversers”

  1. Before my son went to college I asked him what he wanted to do: He said, “I have ruled out poetry.”

    He got a Physics degree but didn’t like Physics very much (all classroom, no stuff).

    When he graduated I asked again what he wanted to do and he said, “Not Physics and I am reconsidering Poetry.”

    He was unemployed from May till November of 2010. Then I took him to a game design company and their head developer said, “What did you study?” “Physics.” “Then you are smart enough to learn this. Sit down, I’m teaching you Ruby.”

    I came back 2 hours ago and he was still at it. The president came by and said, “You’re hired.” I said, “Don’t pay him anything, he isn’t worth anything.” The Pres said, “I wasn’t thinking of it; we have no money.”

    My son worked from November 2010 until June 2011 before getting his first paycheck. Their venture capital funding ran out in Feb 2012 but they have not stopped. He no longer makes money; he just makes ideas exist.

    Friends tell me, “He is being exploited. It is so unfair.”

    I say, “Have you ever made anything?”

    They don’t know what I’m talking about.


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